Actors such as the Church, NGOs, opposition political parties and bilateral partners as the British High Commissioner to Zambia have raised concerns about what has been characterised as a looming hunger crisis in Zambia. The government on the other hand joined by research think tanks suggest there is no need to panic and declare the hunger situation a national crisis. The claim here is that the country holds enough food stocks (carryover and new harvest) to feed the entire nation. However, representatives of this camp such as the Vice President recently revealed the Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit has started distributing relief food to the hunger-stricken areas across the country. And here lies the problem.
NGOs and other actors have been accused for rushing to call for a declaration of a national hunger crisis without providing robust statistics about realities on the ground. The government on the other hand has somewhat failed to open an honest conversation about availability, access and utilisation of maize stocks and what this means for the hunger-stricken communities. Yet, in both camps there seems to be an acknowledgement Zambia is experiencing food deficits in some areas. Recent reports such as those by Caritas Zambia show some areas such as Northern province experienced flooding (destroying crops and homes), with other areas such as those in southern and western provinces experiencing lower precipitation which significantly lowered agricultural yields. To Bishop Director for Caritas Zambia Evans Chinyemba, “places visited by the Catholic Church agents have revealed that 79% of the crops were affected by drought, 13% by floods while 4% were affected by both drought and floods.” Estimates show about “400,000 households are already facing increasing food insecurity and decreased water availability.” And that households in affected areas are already making food intake adjustments, surviving on one meal a day, wild fruits or simply going without food. Based on these reports, they have implored the government to declare the looming hunger situation a national crisis. This perspective might as well be right in that declaring a hunger crisis permits a country to tap into food emergency responses nationally, regionally and globally. However, the position somewhat fails to address the question of what really it takes to declare a hunger crisis in a country and how such communications should be done. The calls haven’t helped address the question of the extent of food systems failure in Zambia. In food security studies, food systems must deliver adequate, safe and nutritious food all the time. However, market distributional mechanism such as those in Zambia mean that food might be available but not necessarily accessed and might be accessed and not necessarily being utilised to deliver food security. These elements must be carefully constructed and exhaustively assessed before strengthening calls to declare a national crisis.
The government acknowledges Zambia has a hunger situation to address but remains unmoved on declaring a national crisis. Some research think-tanks have understandably joined this camp. Whilst the former insists the country holds enough stock to address the hunger situation, the latter has added its voice arguing what Zambia faces is basically a distribution challenge. This perspective makes sense
but conceals essential elements. Market imperatives such as those related to food provisioning do not require quick technical fixes. They are built gradually, prudently and cautiously, and such statements do little to address the current challenges. The 2007/2008 crisis showed that it is increasingly becoming difficult to employ short-term trend analyses in national and global markets to make judgements about long-term food security. In Zambia, predictions and responses have largely been characterised by complacency during periods of bumper harvest and panic and despair in periods of weak yields. The prices of staple grains and edible oils are going up with serious implications on the food basket. If not addressed, the country will possibly face high import bills, raising the need for alternative food sources. Distributional challenges should thus be linked to wider food system.
Without reliable information on food stock availability and processes of access and utilisation, it is difficult to determine which of these positions is right. Difficult also is how to advise the country on how to minimise the negative consequences of the risks associated with the looming hunger situation – which both parties somewhat agree. That the government claims relief food is being distributed in affected areas shows not only its commitment but also its unwillingness to openly discuss this situation. However, future pathways as offered by the opposing parties require revisiting in line with existing evidence, raising the need for honest conversation about the hunger situation in the country from both angles. This requires cooperation from all stakeholders as opposed to confrontation. How social protection can be enhanced, and food systems made more resilient to variable circumstances in affected areas requires concerted efforts across a wide spectrum of stakeholders. Efforts such as by Caritas Zambia and other stakeholders aimed at “targeting to spend not less than US$9.4 million in helping 42,000 households who have been affected by the unfavourable weather conditions” are commendable but can greatly benefit from wider stakeholder participation and consensus building. This starts with a realisation both parties are wrong and that two wrongs do not necessarily made right. None of the positions solves a problem or sets out a grand alternative model of procedure for the hunger situation in Zambia. And that is the point. The prospects for a comprehensive way forward are slender now but reside very centrally in the stakeholders and the extent to which they can cooperate and build consensus.
(Simon Manda is a lecturer at the University of Zambia and a 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow. He also writes for The Conversation)